March Book Log

March 30, 2010

Nice reading month this go round. My total was helped by a couple of books I taught. Still, a nice month.

1. The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic (5.0/5) – This was a book that I read in college. I remembered really liking it, but that was all I could remember, so I thought it was time to reread it. It was fantastic. This is one of two books I read this month that seems to be asking questions as much as telling a story. It’s hard to really like any of the characters, but it’s also impossible to completely hate them. A really wonderful and creative exploration of what can happen when religious fanaticism and intellectual enlightenment collide.

2. Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku (4.5/5) – I tried this last summer, but I just wasn’t in the mood for science writing at the time. I finally picked it back up and found it to be pretty enjoyable. Kaku seems to always do a good job of presenting a narrative to soften the science, which makes this, in many places, like a reading a memoir or history as much as pop-science. Still, he deals well with some pretty complicated concepts (though, from a science perspective, I’d probably recommend The Elegant Universe by Brian Greene). My primary issue was that the last section (where he talks about future technological possibilities) crossed the line from theoretical physics to hypothetical dreaming.

3. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee (5.0/5) – I have nothing new to say about this book. My students read it and it is wonderful, so I read it with them.

4. Tambourines to Glory by Langston Hughes (5.0/5) – Cate and I have exchanged new book lists and this is the first one I’ve read from hers. A VERY quick and easy read, but also very good. Hughes almost always sounds like a poet, even when he’s writing prose, and this is no exception. A complete story in a nice, tight package.

5. Denialism by Michael Specter (4.0/5) – This is a good book and it makes a lot of good points, but I have issues with it. Specter often ignores certain things like our currently declining life expectancy and the ethical issues of companies like Monsanto in order to make his points seem stronger. What’s sad about this is that I fully believe he could have effectively dealt with all of these issues if he’d been willing to go to the trouble. This really is a good book, and I’d recommend it, but Specter is preaching to the choir. He’s not going to change many minds with this book.

6. Romeo and Juliet by William Shakespeare (5.0/5) – See #3. All I have to add is that the more I read this play, the more I think all the characters are totally out of their minds.

7. Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo (5.0/5) – This was the best new book I read this month and it’s the best Russo I’ve come across. There are some criticisms that accuse him of being heavy-handed, but I think they miss the point. I don’t find the book to be heavy-handed so much as I find it to be really honest. This is the other book I read this month that spends as much time asking questions as telling a story. The primary question is very interesting. Russo seems to be wondering what kind of person is the best kind to be. He finds flaws in everything and arrives at nothing like an answer, but the exploration is rich and wonderful. I highly, highly recommend this novel.

Winter/Spring Book Queue Update:

America America by Ethan Canin
The Damnation of Theron Ware by Harold Frederic
Rabbit, Redux by John Updike
Parallel Worlds by Michio Kaku
Great Plains by Ian Frazier
So Long, See You Tomorrow by William Maxwell
The Voyage of the Beagle by Charles Darwin
Bridge of Sighs by Richard Russo
Dune by Frank Herbert
One of Ours by Willa Cather

Curiosity and Parenting

March 21, 2010

I have been doing a lot or science reading recently, particularly some essays written by Neil deGrasse Tyson. Much of it has touched on something I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about in my role as a teacher as well as a parent. That is, curiosity. I am, as Cate can attest, frequently awed by the total lack of curiosity my students seem to have. Many of them openly profess that they do not care about anything and are not interested in anything. I find this not just alarming, but unbelievable. How is it possible to be so incurious? A while ago, I had a discussion with my friend Justin about just this thing. We wondered whether curiosity was inborn and whether it could be taught.

But something I read recently from Tyson reminded me of something I should never have forgotten. He says about kids that, “we spend the first year teaching them to walk and talk and the rest of their lives telling them to sit down and shut up.” Children, he is pointing out, are born scientists. They are naturally curious. Nothing is a better reminder to me of this than when I watch my daughter crawl around and get into absolutely everything. Especially the things we don’t want her to get into.

I am fortunate, I think. I almost always had my curiosity encouraged. While, like any child, I drove my parents crazy with questions of “Why, why, why, and how come?” I was never discouraged from asking them. I do not think that it is a coincidence that I grew into a curious adult who still seeks out information on new topics of interest.

So much of our society teaches children not to ask questions. Parents believe they need to be god-like in their knowledge. Churches that assert that all answers lie in god are often careful to make sure it is known that questions will not be tolerated. Both of these things are a shame and both of them have roots in the same fear of ignorance. There is nothing wrong with a parent saying, “I don’t know.” There is no reason that simply because we do not currently know answer, we should assume that we will never be able to know it and thus, the only explanation is god, which is really no explanation at all. The result of all of this is that I have students who willingly believe that he world will end in 2012, but think evolution is the biggest load of crap they have ever heard of. They have been taught not to question and to put their trust in the mystical and mysterious.

I am fond of saying that if an idea or belief doesn’t stand up to questioning, it is not because there is something wrong with the questions. What I hope to be is a living example of that. It will not be that long until my daughter starts to ask questions. Only a little bit after that, she will start to want to know why Cate and I set our rules the way we do. I want to try my best to make sure that we always tell her why. This means that we actually have to think about the rules we make. It also means that we have to be willing to admit we are wrong when our daughter points out flaws in our logic. We will, I am sure be forced to change. I am sure, also, that “because I said so” will escape my lips at least once or twice. I will try hard to prevent it, but to err is human, and I have a long history of erring.

Most importantly, I want our daughter and her future, but thus far theoretical, sibling to also know that it is ALWAYS okay to ask questions. That it is always okay to be curious and to want to know not just the answer, but why it is the answer and if there are any other answers that work just as well. That is how humans got to where we are today. The best parts of our history are filled with the questions why and how. These are the parts I hope continue.

Part 3

Solutions and False Comparison

I’ve spent about 2500 words now telling you why government attempts at education reform are doomed to failure, and you are probably asking yourself, “Okay, Mr. Smartypants, what should we do about it?” This is where I need to talk about false comparisons.

You will hear the following numbers a lot: The US ranks 15th in reading, 24th in math, and 21st in science among the 30 “industrialized” countries. That tells you something, but not what you think it does. Go look at the charts and follow the links to individual countries, what you will find is this: Every single country ahead of the United States has done one of two things, and usually both: 1. It has plowed a lot of money into the educational system.* 2. It takes care of its people. Most of the countries ahead of us are the same ones you can hear certain members of the government decrying as “European-style Socialism.” These are countries that pay attention to their poor and don’t have the majority of their wealth concentrated in a handful of citizens. Amazingly, when they don’t have to worry about eating or working two jobs, students and their parents seem to do better. Crazy how that works.

*A commonly held misconception is that the US spends more per student than any other country. This is true only in a raw sense. In addition to the discrepancies caused by the inequitable funding system we have in the US, things tend to cost more here, so the US is the leader in educational spending only if you don’t adjust for how much things cost in a given country and ignore the under-funding that occurs in poor communities.

So here are your solutions: The bulk of the problem takes place outside the educational system. To fix it, you need to implement wide spread social reform that shows that the country is dedicated to taking care of all of its citizens. In schools, where the rest of the problem lies, it’s time to actually put the money there. No more dilapidated school buildings. No more desks that are older than me. If a teacher asks for books, the money should be there. Wait, I take that back, a teacher should NEVER have to ask for books. Oh, and if you want to start drawing more people to the profession, especially the struggling schools, you’re going to need to start paying better. A lot better. My first year of teaching, I was stuck in one of the very worst high schools in the state. If I’m being honest, I would require a raise of more than $10,000* to be tempted to move back there. Otherwise, the increased workload and frustration that comes with that job just aren’t worth it. Others might not come as cheaply. This is why inexperienced and bad teachers end up in the worst schools. If your company needs someone to take on a hard, shitty project, and they want someone competent to do the job, they are probably going to have to kick in some extra money. Harder jobs within companies tend to pay more. There is a reason for this.

*I don’t want to hear about how I only care about money. If that were true, I wouldn’t be a teacher. I just don’t want to be miserable everyday, and if I’m going to be, I want to be compensated for it.

If the President and others in the government really want to fix education, there are things that can be done, but I have yet to see any of them discussed. Our elected officials need to wake up and pay attention to how the world really works. Until they are willing to do that and drop the posturing, I’m unwilling to listen.

Part 2

Student Population

This is the big one and it’s going to take a while for me to get through all the ins and outs, but, at the heart of the matter this is nothing more than a socio-economic issue.

As noted, reforms tend to focus almost solely on the population of teachers. This fails because, as you might guess and as study, after study, after study shows, the dominant factor in student performance is socio-economic standing. In fact, this is such a dominant factor that it accounts for at least 70% of the problem. Let’s think about that for a minute and do some fun math.

Earlier, I mentioned a school in Rhode Island that fired all of its teachers. That school had a 50% dropout rate and 7% of its students tested as proficient in math and science. It was, of course, in a highly depressed area. Now, let’s do the math… 70% of 50% is 35%. That means that, if we took these same students and changed nothing about them but where and who they come from but left them in the same school with the same teachers, we could expect the dropout rate to sink to 15%. Additionally, 70% of 93% (the percentage of students failing at math and science) is 65%. Which means, that if you give these students different backgrounds, but leave everything else (again, including teachers) the same you have a school with a 15% dropout rate and 72% of the population testing as proficient in math and science. Incidentally, the average dropout rate in the US is 16%. Crazy, huh?

For reasons I will discuss later, I am willing to concede that this school probably had a teacher population that was below average overall. So let’s be cruel. Let’s assume that these teachers are so bad that they account for the entire rest of the problem. That’s 30% that assumes that facilities, administration, anything else you can think of have absolutely no effect on this student population. Even if that is the case – even if we replace this population of super-awful teachers with a group of educating superhumans then, at best, you can expect a school with a 35% dropout rate and 35% of students testing as proficient in math and science. Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, I give you socio-economic status: The 400 ton elephant in the room of education reform.

But there’s more…

People like to talk about vouchers. President Obama and lots of other government-kiddos think they are totally the greatest. If private schools can do the job better, then let private schools do it, they say. Private schools are the bee’s knees. They are the cat’s pajamas. Our officials send them handmade Valentines every day of the year. This is stupid, and here’s why:

The assumption behind vouchers, which we have already proven to be faulty, is that schools are the primary problem and that parents with children in failing schools will take advantage of this program to get their kids into better (private) schools. The problem with this is that a lot, maybe even most, of the kids who would benefit from something like this don’t have parents advocating for them. This is the only part of this series where I am just going to ask you to take my word for it, but I’ve been in the trenches and I can tell you that, almost without exception, the parents of your most difficult students are the dregs of society. They will swear at you. They will say things like, “I can’t do anything with him either.” They have been to jail, often more than once. They may be engaged in criminal activity right now. Or they may just think education is worthless (“I dropped out and I’m doing fine.”) Many of these people should not be parents, but they are. Their children need help more than anyone else, but a voucher system does absolutely nothing for them.

But it gets deeper still…

The magic number for an at-risk student population is generally accepted to be between 30% and 40%. Any more than that and the school can be expected to experience sever difficulties in educating its general population. Basically, the way it is supposed to work is that kids who come from difficult backgrounds are supposed to be exposed to kids whose parents have taught them the value of education and, in general, how to act. Because of the magic of peer pressure, the majority tends to rule here, which is why the percentages are so important. The vouchers system throws this all out of wack.

What happens is this: Good parents who are unfortunate enough to live in a place where the public school population is pretty rough (and thus the schools look bad) take advantage of vouchers and move their kids to the private school population where they join the children of more affluent parents who would never let their children sniff the public system. What does all this mean? Let me spell it out.

Public schools are largely underfunded and have large populations of students who are unprepared to learn because certain basic needs have not been met. Parents who are paying attention and have the opportunity take their kids to private schools (this is a rational action, by the way. I don’t blame these parents at all. My children will not be going to school in the district where I currently teach).

Private schools are well funded and, this is the big one, DO NOT HAVE TO TAKE EVERYONE. If they see a kid is causing trouble, they can boot that kid out. No questions asked. Where does that kid end up? If you guessed, “public schools,” congratulations, you can read.

In taking students exclusively from the low-risk population, private schools effectively drive up the ratio of high-risk to low-risk students in the public schools. Remember, the higher this ratio is, the harder it is for public schools to succeed because high-risk kids take a lot of extra effort from teachers, which means your low-risk student gets less attention.

So, what you end up with is a school filled with high risk students and teachers that are ready to leave the profession* because dealing with high risk students all day is one of the most stressful jobs in the public sector and it’s hard to do your job when it makes you miserable and you’re not exactly raking it in. Additionally, the drain of talented, low-risk students to private schools creates a drag on test scores which, as we all know, are the only way to assess anything in education and should always go up, no matter what happens. Also, test scores should be the same everywhere because all people are exactly the same and exist in exactly the same circumstances.

*A momentary tangent: I often hear it claimed the private schools have better teachers. There is no data to support this. In fact, go ask a private school teacher why they aren’t in public schools and they will tell you it’s all about the population. Believe it or not, public schools typically pay more, and often a lot more, than private schools. They have to or no one would work from them (a quick example: private schools where I live typically pay about $10,000 a year less than public schools. That is not pocket-change. Yet, they are not hurting for teachers. This should tell you something about the difference in working conditions).

I don’t know exactly why this is, but education reform seems to be a hot topic in the news again (this happens about once every six months). Most recently, I saw that a Rhode Island school fired all of its teachers because the students were performing so badly. President Obama called this accountability. I have been stewing on this whole topic for a while, and I think it’s time I offer some in-depth analysis of everything that gets thrown around. This is lengthy and so, I’m going to offer it in three parts. Today, I’ll give a general introduction and talk about teachers and funding inequities. Tomorrow, I’ll address socio-economic issues, and Wednesday, I’ll have a post about possible solutions and the problems in how we measure the US educational system.

Part 1

All education happens in schools. This is the sentiment. Of course, if you ask anyone from President Obama to your local school board member, you will be told that, of course, there are other factors that are just as important. But, when it comes to policy, the sentiment is always the same: Blame the schools. Or, more specifically: Blame the teachers. This is the easy answer, but it is also horribly misguided. I will attempt to show, in several blog posts, that as long as attempts to reform the US education system insist on focusing solely on what goes on in schools, they are doomed to failure. Let’s take the issues one at a time…


Teachers are the big scapegoats. To hear virtually any policy-maker tell it, all of our educational problems would be solved if only we could get rid of those bad teachers. It is a shame that I have to write about how absurd that is. Where do you work? Can you think of someone who doesn’t really do anything and is a drag on the company, but somehow, continues to be employed? I bet you can. Chances are more than one person leaps to mind. Yet miraculously, the company you work for continues to exist. You continue to have a job. The world does not come crashing down. Yes, there are bad teachers. I work with some of them, but most teachers are actually pretty decent at their jobs. Education is exactly like any other industry. There are inefficient employees, but they do not destroy the system.

There is a perception out there that teachers do not want to have their performance assessed. This is untrue. What is more accurate is that teachers do not want to have their performance assessed in an unreliable way. Let’s say you are a brand new lawyer. Just hired. Let’s also say that small firm you work for has hired nine other new associates. So there are ten of you chomping at the bit. Now, let’s say that your boss is masochistic and tells you that she is going to assign each of you a different case. The two of you who perform best will be given large bonuses. The two that perform the worst will be fired. You will be measured by the size of the settlement you win for your client. On the surface, this might sound fair, but then you are assigned your case and you look at the evidence and see that it is overwhelmingly bad news for your client. It would take a miracle to get any money in a settlement. However, you overhear the guy next to you talking about the tape recording he has of his client being sexually harassed. Starting to seem less equitable, isn’t it?

This is the problem with assessing teachers based on standardized tests. Some of us teach AP classes. Some of us teach kids who are barely literate. Some of us teach kids with two supportive parents at home and some of us kids who watched their brothers get shot in a gang fight and whose single “present” parent is actively involved in the drug trade. Now, let me ask you a question, how is it a reasonable to assess teachers based on how the students they see maybe five hours a week score on a standardized test? I’m not saying a decent assessment using standardized testing isn’t possible. I’m saying that every single policy proposal I have ever seen comes nowhere near grasping the inherent difficulties and inconsistencies in trying to shape such a teacher-based assessment. That’s why the whole assessment thing is kind of a sticking point for us.

There is more, of course. Have you heard the rhetoric that comes from legislators? How would you feel if everyday, your boss came in and said to everyone, “Basically, I think you all stink at your jobs. I’m going to ask the board of directors to implement an inequitable evaluation procedure that will tell me who stinks the most. And then I’m going to fire those people.” Doesn’t set your world on fire, does it? So, yeah, you can assess us. I don’t mind that at all, but how about you work with us. Listen to our concerns and we’ll listen to yours and then we can come up with something equitable and we won’t have to go on strike or anything crazy like that. But don’t come in telling us how it’s going to be when you have absolutely no idea what you’re talking about and expect us to jump on board. We aren’t crazy. If you want reform to succeed, you have to work with the people who will be affected by it, not bully them.

Teachers are, for the most part, altruistic people. We get expensive, advanced degrees so we can go do work that pays only okay, but makes the world better. Don’t talk down to us and don’t try to claim we only care about our own interests. If that were true, we wouldn’t be teachers.

The Real Problems

But, as I pointed out very early on. Teachers aren’t really the problem here. Certainly, not the main problem. Really, there are two major problems. Funding and Student Population. I’ll look at the first one today and have a long post on the second tomorrow.


The most obviously inequitable aspect of the American education system is the way it is funded. The vast majority of public schools are funded almost exclusively by local property taxes. What does this mean? It’s not hard to figure out. If you live in a wealthy area, property taxes will draw in more money. This will result in schools that can pay for nicer facilities and better teachers. If you live in a depressed area, your schools will constantly lack funds. Your children will not have books. Your teachers will be those who can’t get a job elsewhere.

One very, very easy step in fixing the American education system would be to implement a funding system that at least approaches rationality. Think about this. The poorest schools are in the districts with the most difficult populations. No-freaking-wonder a bunch of schools are failing. It’s like being asked to walk a St. Bernard with a piece of dental floss while the person next you walks their toy poodle with towing chain. Current federal programs are no help as they end up disproportionately awarding funds to schools that don’t need help.